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When visitors entered the Institute of Contemporary Art’s galleries this weekend, they encountered not a traditional piano concert but instead the startling sight of a Steinway, its strings laced with rubber and metal, upon which pianist Elaine Rombola played selections from John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes.” Cage premiered the complete work in 1948 during a visit to Black Mountain College, an experimental, arts-centered school in North Carolina that brought together many key artistic figures of the postwar period. The works of teachers and students at the college, from Josef Albers to Willem de Kooning, are featured in “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1945,” an exhibition that opened last month at the ICA.
Before the performance, Rombola spent about an hour and a half preparing the piano by tying some of its strings with rubber bands and inserting metal screws and erasers between others, according to the exact measurements provided by Cage’s score. These operations transformed the instrument’s sound. “The piano sounds like an entire percussion ensemble,” Rombola said.
During Rombola’s performance, the sounds created by the striking of the keys shifted, at some points resembling the ringing of bells or the plucking of harp strings, at others the noise of tapping on a hollow piece of wood or the plunk of a pebble into a deep pond. The music itself ranged from energetically rhythmic, evocative of drums and stomping feet, to meditative and resonant, almost like a lullaby. “John Cage discovered a whole world of sound in the piano that no one had ever heard before,” said John Andress, the ICA’s associate director of performing arts, in his introduction to the performance.
As Rombola sat practicing Cage’s piece and adjusting the piano before the performance, a girl of about 10 wandered over to listen. “Are you playing a song or just random notes?” the girl asked after standing in puzzled silence for a few moments. “It’s a song, but that’s a very good question,” Rombola replied, laughing.
Cage’s piece departs from many of the conventions of musical composition. His instructions for placing the objects among the strings, for example, were written based on a specific piano; since pianos can be of different sizes, much of the setup depends on the pianist’s judgment of what makes the notes sound best. At one point during the performance, Rombola even paused to adjust one of the screws. Cage’s work is characterized by an openness to chance, contingency, and individual interpretation that counters traditional definitions of authorship. He also challenges the autonomy of art—its perceived separateness from ordinary experience—by bringing mundane household objects literally into the piano and figuratively into the sphere of creative production.
The performance within the gallery space evoked the connections between Cage’s ideas and the visual arts. A monoprint, “Female Figure” by Robert Rauschenberg—a student at Black Mountain College with whom Cage would later collaborate—hung across from the piano. Like Cage’s piece, Rauschenberg’s work, created by having a model lie on photosensitized paper so that a pale silhouette of her body appeared on a cyan background, de-emphasizes authorship and incorporates non-traditional artistic materials. The physical interaction of the model’s body with light, rather than Rauschenberg himself, makes the image, on a surface similar to sunprint paper.
In an interview following the event, Rombola, a pianist and teacher trained at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory, says that she has always loved Cage. “I find them endlessly engrossing. I could play them all day,” she says of “Sonatas and Interludes.” She adds, however, that Cage’s work is challenging not only in terms of ideas, but also in terms of its physical performance: Playing a prepared piano piece requires a different touch by the performer, because the amount the keys must be depressed to create sound changes with the insertion of objects into the strings.
According to Rombola, however, Cage’s work is often treated as a joke by musicians and composers. Andress, who himself comes from a music background, agreed. “To be completely honest, he's much more revered in the visual art world than he is in the music world,” Andress said. “Visual artists love him, but I find composers, even good friends, are still skeptical or dismissive of some of his compositional practices.”
Yet Andress acknowledged that Cage’s tendency to stray from the typical, for all that it invites the derision of his fellow musicians, is masterful in the way it challenges listeners and their preconceived notions about music. “John Cage tends to muck things up a bit, to upend our ideas of what music can be,” he said.
—Staff writer Elizabeth C. Keto can be reached at email@example.com.
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